Wednesday, May 7, 2014

PayPal's Reaction to Departed Exec Required Better Appreciation of Mental Health Issues

Rocky Agrawal's public meltdown on Twitter this week attracted its fair share of rubberneckers who were perversely entertained by his five-day break from reality. Many in the virtual crowd of Silicon Valley workers, VCs and tech media pundits egged-on the fired former PayPal Director of Strategy as he manically tweeted insults about his former colleagues, and made wild claims about raising money for a supposed new venture coupled with six-figure job offers to people who could locate him in New York City based on his tweets.

Let me first disclose that I've known Rocky for several years. He hired me as a product manager at AOL. Seeing a friend and colleague fall from grace in this manner saddened me as I watched my feed in realtime. However I was more shocked by the callousness of PayPal in publicly firing him on Twitter and the lack of compassion of its CEO David Marcus towards someone who was obviously mentally unstable.  "I will not tolerate your mad rants any longer," wrote Marcus on PayPal's corporate blog claiming to defend the honor of his staff. But rather than exhibiting "Leadership" (the topic of his post) Marcus displayed what little regard he has for employees who breakdown in times of emotional crisis.

A bit of background for those not following this saga. Rocky was hired by PayPal a little over two months ago. He was a high-profile get for the company based on his two decades of product management experience for AOL, Microsoft and others.  He also appeared frequently on Bloomberg TV offering prescient commentary on the value of GroupOn and other second generation dot-com companies. For some reason on Friday night while he was on vacation in New Orleans Rocky started sending out obscene messages on Twitter about PayPal employees  (I don't think its constructive to repeat them) and others that were just plain gibberish.  He later claimed that they were supposed to be private direct messages written on a new Android phone that malfunctioned. On Saturday, PayPal fired back -- literally:

Rocky moved on to New York City and started to go into destructive overdrive:

Observers following the stream could plainly see what was going on: outbursts that broke through social guardrails, delusions of grandeur, and long periods without sleep all seemed indicative of a bipolar disorder and a manic episode.

According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 14 million  Americans suffer from bi-polar disorders -- almost half of them are, perhaps like Rocky, undiagnosed. Handling such employees can be extremely taxing for any HR department. "Some of the bipolar people can be your greatest stars and the biggest problems all at the same time," says Tom Wooton who has developed a series of workshops for employers on how to deal with bipolar disorders in the workplace.

Wooton advises companies that a bi-polar employee can be both a high performer - with lots of energy, creativity, and ideas - but also cause problems with coworkers or engage in risky behavior. Regardless, these employees have to be reasonably accommodated under the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and can't be easily fired (or forced to resign) if problems arise.

I don't know if Rocky had other problems with PayPal that caused such a precipitous reaction, but Paypal should have asked him to end his vacation and return to HQ once his insulting tweets started. In person the company may have been able to better assess the situation and helped Rocky decide whether he needed medical care. Instead it tossed him overboard and left him all alone without the company of friends or family to absorb the shock.

To truly add insult to injury CEO Marcus then declared in his blog posting that Rocky needed assistance but that it was someone else's problem: "Now...if you're a close friend of Rocky's and you're out there, I'd strongly suggest getting to him sooner rather than later, as his behavior is extremely worrisome. We at PayPal are putting this episode behind us, as always working on behalf of our customers."

Let me suggest to Mr. Marcus that there are millions of Paypal customers like me who have friends and relatives suffering from bipolar disorders or other mental illnesses. How you treat your employees is a good indication of how you will treat your customers when the chips are down -- which is to say not very well.

Update: I spoke to Rocky earlier this evening. First, his brother has flown in from San Francisco and is with him. This  is good.  Rocky insists he wasn't fired but had resigned by email before ever sending his epic tweets. The sequence according to Rocky has been  reported by Business Insider. Rocky is upset that PayPal's tweet was vaguely worded so as to give the impression that he was fired. Rocky says that he resigned because three executives who he respected had just left PayPal and he came to the realization that company's product was would never meet his own high standards. He felt that he could do better by executing his own vision so he fired off an e-mail on Friday night at 9:34 pm. He receievd an e-mail from his manager saying that they would sort it out on Monday morning. Howver it  seems that his nocturnal misadventures between Friday night and Saturday made this discussion moot.

My take is that Rocky's resignation,  his Twitter comments against PayPal employes, and his growing mania in New York cannot be viewed as isolated incidents. They are an escalating set of events that need to be looked at together in order to be properly understood. It did not help at all that PayPal poured fuel on the fire. I've counseled Rocky that he needs to take a break and with the help of a therapist he can start to undertand why his,  actions which make so much sense to him, caused the rest of us so much worry.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Square Wallet at Starbucks Doesn't Work Very Well

Updated. Square’s wallet technology won a big endorsement when Starbucks decided to adopt it nationwide. In practice however using an ordinary credit card to pay for my daily cup of joe and pastry would be much quicker given the time I have to spend at the cash register teaching Starbucks’ staff how to use their own technology.

The Square Wallet is supposed to let a customer use their iPhone or Android smartphone to easily pay for their Starbucks purchase. After it’s downloaded from the app store the user inputs his or her credit card number into the app and Square stores it. Then when you enter a Starbucks location that accepts Square Wallet, the app geo-locates you using your phone’s GPS. After you select the store you’re in you can pay for your purchase by showing the QR code that appears on the phone’s screen. The check-out clerk scans your phone and you’re on your way – in theory.

In the two or so months since its debut I’ve tried using Square Wallet at a half dozen Starbucks in the New York City area. It hasn’t once worked like it’s supposed to.

First Starbucks barristas are often confused between the Square QR code they have to scan and the code generated for Starbucks’ own mobile app. I usually have to tell them that it’s Square that a want to use and then they have to step back and consult with their colleagues. One of these folks will remember that a separate button has to be pressed on the Starbucks cash register before Square can be accepted.

Then what I’ll call the “scanning dance” begins. Try as they might  barristas have never been able to scan Square’s QR image. Instead I have to slowly read out to them a 16 digit alpha numeric code that appears beneath the below the image. This error prone process causes everyone frustration.

People standing behind me in line glare since I’m standing between them and their coffee fix. The barristas aren’t happy because throwing them a curve ball that’s upending their happy task of mixing drinking. I’m of course fuming because everyone else is mad at me. It’s a circle of discontent. (Sometimes though it’s so busy that the barrista will give me my drink for free. This maybe an ironic incentive to use Square Wallet more often).

A spokeswoman for Square told me that the company is continuing to learn from its efforts and it's working closely with Starbucks to perfect the experience. Square hopes to introduce more features this year to make it even better.

One nice feature about the existing app is that once I make a purchase an itemized version of my receipt appears automatically and is stored with all my previous purchases. Besides saving a few trees, not having my pocket or wallet filled with crumpled bits of paper is a good thing.

Selecting a Starbucks location shows a QR Code that a barrista is supposed to scan, but often the scan doesn't work. I have to read out the alpha numeric number to the barista and sometimes I get a free drink because its too much of a bother. 

From the perspective of a consumer having a virtual wallet where the credit or debit card stored on my phone is a compelling proposition because it reduces the number of items I have to carry. Cash was replaced by plastic. Plastic may be replaced by a digital image (or radio waves travelling in the air in the case of NFC based technologies like Google Wallet). Payment for goods and services becomes frictionless.

However the promise of the virtual wallet will go unfulfilled unless there is mass adoption by merchants. Certainly Square and Starbucks are demonstrating the promise of things to come, but mobile payments will only be a brand associated novelty unless it becomes more widespread.

Given this, I wonder whether Square is rightly placed in the mobile payments eco-system for long term success? Does it become and acquisition target for another player or will it become roadkill as a result of a company that is better positioned. If Visa, Mastercard or American Express had mobile wallet services that would certainly make the service more available amongst merchants. Integration of Square Wallet at the device level by Apple (iOS) or Google (Android) would also make the technology more universal.

The Square Wallet has other features that Starbucks hasn’t rolled-out yet that make mobile payments unique. One service allows hands free payment by having the customers picture appear on the merchants’ check out screen. This way the consumer doesn’t even have to take their phone out of their pocket.

No doubt Square Wallet is innovative and its distribution with Starbucks gives it some heft in the marketplace,  but without nailing down the ability to consistently scan the QR code it’s a broken experience and creates more friction than it eliminates.

Update: Looks like this was fixed through a software update to the point of sales system. Starbucks reached out to me through Twitter after I posted this article for the addresses of the locations where I was having trouble. A couple of weeks later the location was able to scan. According to the manager he had to scan a new barcode into the system and in effect "teach" the system. Coverage is still spotty though because not all locations have received the code update.

Friday, May 11, 2012

60% of Yahoo! Workers Want CEO Scott Thompson Fired

My company WikiOrgCharts conducted a small survey of Yahoo! workers yesterday. Some of the results and comments are reported in this Venturebeat article by Rocky Agrawal. Nearly 60% of people who work at Yahoo! believe that CEO Scott Thompson should resign according to an e-mail survey of Yahoo! employees. A majority of workers also want Tim Morse, the company's CFO to assume the top job permanently.

The sentiment amounts to stark vote of no confidence from rank and file Yahooers of the new chief executive who was recruited months ago from Paypal. Thompson said on his CV and in Yahoo!'s fillings with the SEC that he had a Computer Science degree when in fact he did not.

“I'm appalled by the lack of integrity and honesty displayed by Scott Thompson who apparently isn't even willing to apologize for his misrepresentations,” said one respondent writing in a comments section that formed part of the survey. “All he aplogized for was the disruption this whole affair has caused thus far but not for the fact that he lied in the first place. ”

Other Yahoo! employees criticized the company's Board of Directors for allowing the situation to fester, “The subsequent lack of board action (or at least slow impending action) to remove Mr Thompson will demonstrate that we really do need a new board and new leadership that employees and industry can genuinely look-to for inspiration,” said another survey taker.

The attitudes and comments were gathered from 40 current Yahoo! employees who work at all levels
Goodbye Scott Say Yahooers
of the company and in a variety of positions who responded to the “Yahoo! Employee Happiness” survey. is a web site I founded that allows users to build crowdsourced corporate organization. It conducted the survey by e-mailing more than 1,000 Yahoo! workers that are in its database. This exercise demonstrates another way we can gather corporate intelligence. By sides constructing org charts we can an inside view into what employees in a particular company are saying.

In addition to asking company employees about the fate of their fibbing CEO, repondents were also asked about who should succeed Thompson if he was fired and how long they themselves would stay at Yahoo!.

The majority of Yahooers surveyed, 41%, said that CFO Tim Morse should be made the CEO. Morse held the reins at Yahoo! temporarily this year when the company's Board of Directors dismissed then CEO Carol Bartz. If he doesn't want the job insiders are rooting for Ross Levinsohn Yahoo!'s Head of Global Media. Also suggested was Dr. Werner Vogels, CTO of – someone who does have a CS degree.

Yahoo! Workers Want Out
In terms of their own tenure of the company, nearly half the workers say that they are headed for the exit door. Twelve percent of those surveyed said they planned to leave the company this month. Another 36% of those surveyed expected to leave Yahoo! within a year. The remainder said that they planned to leave within two to three years or that they had not plans to leave at all.

Notwithstanding the negative sentiment Thompson has his supporters. “The media is blowing this out of proportion,” said one repsondent. “Leave Yahoo! Alone.”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Some Thoughts on Steve Jobs

It was fitting that I learned of Steve Jobs' death while I was at the Silicon Alley Insider 100 party tonight on the trading floor of the NYSE. There, amidst banks of phones and screens where billions of dollars are traded each day, a very large subset of NYC geeks who matter were all looking at monitors that announced the news of Apples founder and expressed their sadness to each other about the loss of a technology giant.

I never met Steve Jobs, but I did see him in the flesh when I attended Apple's World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC) in 2008. That conference was notable for being the first one after the introduction of the iPhone. I have to say that when he came onto the stage I was shocked. Instead of the youthful looking Jobs I had seen in many pictures he looked extremely gaunt and frail. I remember the rest of the audience was shocked as well. The company's stock dipped that day and the story in the media was not about all the cool things that Apple was doing but about the health of its co-founder. That's the day the Jobs health watch began.


I am an Apple fanboy, and my love for computers was influenced by Steve Jobs and the machines he designed. I saw my first Apple computer when I was in the third grade. There were three Apple II Plus machines that sat on some library tables. We were told not to touch them, but I was fascinated. They eventually went to the guidance counselor’s office (lucky him). I found a book that had simple basic programs and got permission to the office to use the computers. I spent many hours trying to type in a complete program to make the rocket created in ASCII characters fly. The problem was lunch time wasn't long enough to complete the task so I had to start over every time. No one told me about something called a floppy disk.

The II Plus was succeeded by the Apple IIc. This computer was really beautiful. I remember it was nicely designed white machine with a chiclet-style keyboard. Today we speak of the digital haves and the have nots. One of my elementary school classmates was a digital have. His parents had the foresight and money to buy him one of these machines. I was a have not. The IIc was not in our family's budget, and so whenever we went to his house I wasn't really interested in playing with him -- I just wanted time on his machine.

My first computer was a DEC Rainbow. It was a gigantic machine and ran on MS-DOS 2.0. I got it as an obsolete hand-me-down for the doctor my mother worked for. I was appreciative, but it was not an Apple. I enjoyed exploring the PC world, but the problem with the DEC was that it was completely useless for school work because its programs were incompatible with those used on other PCs. So most of my assignments were typed PCs as my mother's office, at libraries, or at school.

The PC would dominate my life for the next 20 years. In college some students had Macs which could produces documents with nice fonts, but I used the PCs in the computer lab. When I finally purchased my own machine it was a PC because I could save my work and use the lab's printer. As I went to work, employers gave me PCs. Apple seemed to be for designers.

Apple and Jobs didn't really enter into my life again until I was in my mid-30s. I have never owned much music so the iPod completely passed my by. My re-introduction to Apple occurred through the iPhone. The moment I had it in my hands I knew the iPhone was miles ahead of any other so-called “smartphone.” The combination of hardware design and the software was incredible – and still is.

Unlike many commentators I don't think Jobs single-handedly designed any of the great products we associate with Apple. To give him such credit is to put him on a pedestal too high. (After all Wozniak soldered the components of the first Apple machines, and many specialized engineers and designers worked on later products.) What we can credit Jobs' with is in having a vision of how these machines and software should work. He had the opportunity and power to bring talented people together and motivate them to work to his high standards. He had sign off authority and he used it time and time again. Other executives would have shipped substandard products but Jobs wanted perfection – or at least as close to it as he could get.

I now have a complete set of Apple products: a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and an iPad. I spend almost half my waking hours (maybe more) every day using one of them. As I use them I find “joy” because I can use them to express myself, learn or entertain myself in an unencumbered fashion. That is Steve Jobs' gift to me and to all of us.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Apple Ups the Ante with OS 4

Apple held a news conference today to announce several enhancements to the iPhone operating system. This fourth generation of the OS will include:

Multitasking: One of the biggest gripes about the iPhone is that it only allows access to one application at a time. Now if developers integrate the new APIs several applications run at once. In addition if you’re using an application like AOL Radio or Shoutcast you can start using another app and the music will continue streaming. The same can be done for location. Instead of shutting down Mapquest and losing navigation, the iPhone can continue accessing location and providing turn-by-turn directions. Finally VOIP applications like Skype can also function in the background so calls can be received even if Skype isn’t running.

Another feature related to multitasking that was discussed during this segment was “push notification” and “local notification.” In lieu of multitasking Apple had devised a system in which an application could send a user a SMS-type alert even when the application wasn’t running. This was useful in apps like AIM where messaging was occurring in real time but it wasn’t practical to keep AIM running all the time. Now rather than relying on Apple’s servers for this feature, notifications can be run off of developers’ own servers.

Multitasking will be available for the iPhone 3GS and the third generation touch but not for second generation devices. (If you are a first gen user doesn't look like Apple is even targeting these handsets anymore).

Game Center: Here Apple is taking direct aim at Nintendo and Sony. There are more than 50,000 games available for the iPhone (out of 180K apps total). Apple is upping its support of gaming by creating APIs that allow users to invite their friends to play a game and allow for matchmaking between all users of a particular game. Additional APIs allow for leaderboards and achievement lists.

iAd: Through its recent acquisition of Quattro wireless, Apple will begin to challenge Google in the mobile display ad marketplace. Apple’s premise is that users spent 30 minutes a day using apps on the iPhone. By integrating a user friendly (oxymorn?) ad format and app-like functionality it can turn mobile advertising from an annoyance to something tolerable – maybe even entertaining for users. In a clever bit of cross promotion Apple showed an ad for Disney’s Toy Story 3 (Steve Jobs sits on the Disney Board) which included a video in the HTML 5 format (diss to Adobe). Currently technology from AdMob and Millennial Media force the app a user is using to shut down. The new iAds allow for display within the application itself. Apple will be splitting ad revenues with the developers 60/40 (in the developers favor) and hopes that this will encourage the monetization of free apps.

Folders: OS 4 allows users to organize their applications into folders. This essentially expands the number of applications a user can have on his device. Previously an iPhone was limited to displaying 180, now its 2,130. A folder is created by moving one application over another and naming a folder.

Unified Messaging: The mailbox feature in the iPhone let you set up multiple accounts but each one had to be looked at separately. The unified messaging feature allows mail from multiple sources to be mixed, including supporting multiple exchange servers. The option to have messages threaded will also be supported. Finally attachments to mail can be opened with apps that are resident on the iPhone.

iBooks: The iPad launched this week with a new e-book reader and store called iBook. It’s currently not available for the iPhone but will be as part of OS 4. Now you can get your free Winnie The Pooh book too.

Enterprise: The iPhone is not only a consumer device. According to Apple 80% of Fortune 500 companies use iPhone in the enterprise. OS 4 builds in better encryption, better device management, support for multiple Exchange servers and other features that will make life easier for IT administrators and make them less hostile to the notion of letting iPhones on to their networks. Obviously Apple is going after RIM here. There are many people I know who carry both an iPhone and a Blackberry. As Apple incorporates Enterprise support the need to carry that other phone lessens.

Given the above there was obviously a lot packed into today’s announcement but there still seem to be those with a vested interest in Flash that seem to be grumbling. For example I received an e-mail from Dominique Jodoin, President and CEO of Bluestreak Technology which bills itself as the 2nd largest provider of embedded Flash solutions in the world. Jodoin says, “Until the iPhone supports Flash technology, like most other wireless devices do, and, specifically, many competitive Android-powered devices, it will never offer a complete data services experience to consumers.”

I’m not so sure I would agree. There are 75 million iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad users in the world. Even though an awful lot of content companies use Flash they will be forced to use HTML 5 in order to cater to this large user base. If they start doing that and web browsers also adopt the HTML 5 standard, then developers will start to abandon Flash.

So in the short term while Jodoin may be right, he’s playing defense to Apple’s juggernaut .

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Initial Thoughts on the iPad

I got my hands on an iPad yesterday morning. I had originally pre-reserved one but ended up on a family ski trip over the weekend so a friend picked it up for me.

My 9-year-old son enthusiastically opened the box. After admiring sleek design for a few minutes he summed it up thus: “It doesn’t have a camera and it doesn’t have a phone.” I had to explain to him the rationale of buying a first generation WiFi only version.

My 6-year-old daughter also bounded up the steps to get her hands on Dad’s new toy. Her takeaway: “It’s like your iPhone only much bigger.”

That just about sums up what most professional reviewers had to say about the iPad, but wait there’s more…

Form Factor and Connectivity

The iPad is slightly larger than a paperback book and weighs about 1.5 pounds (I have a 16GB but found that the 64 GB was a bit heavier). It’s also heavier and bigger than the Amazon Kindle.

With these dimensions the iPad is not something you casually carry in your hand as you walk down the street. This is definitely a device that you use sitting down in a chair and consume media.

Besides the bulkiness there is a sense of fragility. I get the sense that phones are designed to withstand a few drops. The feeling I got dropping an iPad was akin to dropping a baby (No I haven’t dropped any of mine) – the horror I felt compelled me to buy a case for it immediately.

When I initially considered the prospect of buying an iPad I was convinced that 3G connectivity would be unnecessary, however I’m beginning to have second thoughts about this assumption. I really got to use it the first time on my train trip to work. As I sat rolling towards NYC I realized that I couldn’t read the New York Times or check my email, things I was used to doing on my iPhone. Even in WiFi hotspots there may be problems. There are some reports circulating about poor connectivity. I experienced this myself at my office in NYC, but that may have been due specifically to the quality of reception in that space. One of the best things about the iPad is the batter life. I used it yesterday continuously for 12 hours and I still had juice left. In contrast my iPhone dies after a few hours of use.


The iPad is all about the screen. The 9.7-inch LED-backlit IPS display on iPad makes everything pop. Unlike the iPhone I don’t believe that websites need to be customized for this device except to mitigate the lack of Flash support. Regular web sites show up just fine albeit a little smaller.

As for native applications certainly with a larger screen, the UI for many apps can be altered to take advantage of the larger canvas. As such the interface can be made much richer and easier to use.

Although iPhone apps can be used on the iPad they appear in their original iPhone size shape. They can be magnified, but I found that making these larger pixilated the text and you could definitely see a marked quality difference between iPhone and iPad applications. This means that serious developers will have to create separate iPhone and iPad versions, not to mention Android and desktop. That’s a lot of development effort and one that should be rationalized (ie. Publishers should ask themselves

Ultimately the bigger screen size means that the content experience will be richer. One free app that I downloaded, A Story B4 Bedtime, displays children’s stories. The narration is recorded via webcam by parents, and the book and video/voice track are bundled up. (Presumably this is for kids to use when their parents are traveling but I could see publishers distributing versions read by authors.)

Another app that I thought took advantage of the screen was a comic book reader from Marvel. The Hulk and the Fantastic 4 never looked so good backlit.

iPad vs Kindle

I also downloaded the iPad Kindle reader and so I could continue reading Ken Auletta’s “Googled,” which I had started on my iPhone (in sheer coincidence his literary agent was sitting next to me on the train). The larger screen meant I didn’t have to hold the device up to my nose. Apple also has a books app called iBooks. “Winnie the Pooh” is a free download and shows-off the iPad’s superior features.

The first think you notice is that the books available on the iPad can have color pictures just like real books. That’s infinitely more entertaining than page after page of gray text. Second, with a flick of a finger the iBooks reader simulates the turning of a page. No more Kindle flash. Both features make iBooks a much natural reading (and learning) experience.

The multi-purpose nature of the iPad ensures that it is a Kindle killer. The latter is a one trick pony while the iPad is a swiss army knife.

Rafe Needleman of CNET has an in depth look at the issue and feels the opposite, but the shortcomings of iBooks are only temporary and will be bridge by the time the next version of iBooks comes along.

The Takeaway

Even though it debuted at $600 the iPhone was a utilitarian device which exposed millions Americans (and the world) to the notion that a phone could be much more than a phone. In contrast, even with its benefits, the $500 iPad is an expensive toy for the media consumer. It offers convenience and a better experience. It doesn’t necessarily solve a big pain point or create a new need.

However the price point will decrease over the next year, and as it does more and more people are going to buy one to complement their iPhones.

Additionally the bigger market for Apple may exist among the 19 million high school and college students. Once they start getting their course material (and movies, games, and web surfing) on one device that will create a very large user base for Apple

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Software Helps Parents Monitor/Control SMS Usage

I saw two companies at the Showstoppers event in Las Vegas tonight that are trying to make sending SMSes on mobile phones safer. TextArrest prevents teens from sending text messages while driving, and Smobile helps parents monitors the child's text messages for inappropriate content.

Texting is big in the US. Nearly 161 million Americans have sent text messages on their mobile phone, and among young people 82% under the age of 25 use text to communicate. Inevitably problems can and do arise.

There have been many instances in which drivers -- not just teens -- have been distracted while driving causing horrific accidents. Additionally the phenomena of sexting -- the sending of sexually suggestive pictures and messages has received national attention. Cyberbullying can also be a problem.

TextArrest is a downloadable application that uses the GPS in a smartphone to detect when a person is travelling more than 5 miles per hour. It then locks down the screen of the phone preventing messages from being seen or from being written. Passengers can override the system, but all such attempts are logged. Using web based software a parent can detect when their child turned the system off.

Smobile tackles the other part of the problem by providing for the parent a copy of every SMS or picture that was sent on the phone its installed in. The web based software also detects when inappropriate words are used like beer or naked and alerts parents. The software also scans pictures.

TextArrest costs $4.99 per month for up to 5 family members. Smobile costs 29.99 for a single installation